What Is Wagyu? Consider This Your Ultimate Guide to Super Premium Beef
Where's the beef? If it's wagyu, the answer is pretty much everywhere. It used to be a remarkably rare and precious ingredient found only on the menus of the most exclusive restaurants, and while it's still precious, wagyu has become a lot more available. Today you'll find a wide variety of retailers offering it including high end meat purveyors, restaurants, and even warehouse club big box stores. According to Marc Zimmerman, owner of A-Five Meats and Gozu, the availability comes down to a combination of things. "Restaurants have been pivoting to selling retail. Importers are still bringing in beef even with rolling restaurant closures, and we're getting stuck with it. Once restaurants are closed you've got to figure out how to move it," he says. Another factor? The price is lower due to not meeting the tariff limits.
What Is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu is just Japanese beef explains Zimmerman, but it's a special kind of beef that is much more marbled than typical American beef, and it's the marbling that contributes to tenderness, moistness, and flavor. Ariane Daguin, the founder of specialty food company D'Artagnan Foods, has been selling wagyu for over 10 years. While we associate wagyu with Japan, Daguin says, "Wagyu did not originate in Japan, it was a strain of Angus from Scotland. The Japanese took a strain that was amenable to getting fat and developed techniques for raising it." She explains that meat becomes marbled with time, but in the U.S. animals are quickly fattened with a diet of grain. "In Europe we had more marbled beef but the animals were five to ten years old. In the U.S. most of what we eat is Angus and it is barely two years old." Wagyu, she explains, is somewhere in the middle, and is typically three years old when harvested.
What About Kobe and Tajima?
You may have seen the name Kobe with beef and wondered if it's the same as wagyu. According to Zimmerman, "Kobe is a brand, there's an association, and it's named for a city in Japan. Kobe has led the way for marketing. Just like Certified Angus, it's a brand and a standard. There are farmers raising cattle and meeting the criteria and the grading. It's a multitude of farms versus a single private farm." Another term you'll see is Tajima. Zimmerman explains, "Tajima is the primary strain, the epicenter of where wagyu came from." Just as not all sparkling wine is Champagne, not all wagyu is Kobe or Tajima.
Where Does Wagyu Beef Come From?
While wagyu was developed in Japan, it's also produced in Australia and the U.S. today. Just as there are differences between farms, each ranch is different, and even the wagyu from Japan differs from region to region and from ranch to ranch. The wagyu we get from Japan is of the top quality, but don't assume that the wagyu from other places isn't as good. In fact, Daguin is a big fan of wagyu from Texas. "I really like the domestic wagyu. I buy it from a woman who raises the beef without antibiotics and growth hormones and the feedlot is in the prairie," she says, adding that the wagyu from the U.S. is often a cross of wagyu and another breed, so the beef is still rich in fat, but not quite as fatty as the wagyu we get from Japan.
Eric Upper, executive chef for Alexander's Steakhouse eats wagyu almost daily as part of the job. He relishes the differences between beef coming from different places and recommends trying a small sampling of each side by side. Says Upper, "Australia has full breed wagyu but also crosses with different breeds, it's beefier, you can eat it in bigger increments. Australia has been doing it for a long time and a lot of packers are certified halal. There are many unique farms in Australia." In addition to the climate, Upper says the feed makes a big difference. For example, in Sendai, Japan, the cows are fed rice and there's a cleaner finish. According to Upper, "The more you eat it, the more you pick up on nuances. Like wine, you get the butteriness, but also the flavor."
How Is Wagyu Beef Graded?
In the U.S., we have only three grades of beef: prime, select, and choice. Japan uses the Beef Marbling Score or BMS. Explains Zimmerman, "It's a scale from 1-12, 5 is equivalent to American prime, 8 is A5 and 5,6,7 is A4." But he adds that the Japanese grading is informational, the top is not the best. Like Daguin, he says he'd rather have a A3 or A4 because it's still rich, but more lean.
How Do You Cook and Serve Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu is expensive and no one wants to ruin a pricey (and delicious) piece of meat. Daguin says the serving size varies depending on where it comes from. For her, the magic size is 12 ounces, which means nine or ten ounces at end of cooking for domestic, but for the Japanese Waygu she says two to three ounces is really the maximum you'll want to eat due to the richness of the meat. She recommends serving it with a side of a bright sauce like chimichurri.
When it comes to cooking the experts are in agreement: Grilling is the best way to go. Says Upper, "It depends on how comfortable you are cooking beef, but the best way would be to get some each kind of wagyu, and grill them and serve them side by side. Any grill is fine, even a pan is fine but you want to get a nice sear on it." While Upper recommends serving it medium rare, he notes that even if you like it more well done, the fat content will keep it juicy. Zimmerman agrees saying, "The big thing is to not freak out over how expensive it is. Cook it on a hot grill or in a cast iron pan. Go relatively pure with salt and pepper. Small pieces may render out at room temperature so only leave it out for a few minutes. You can always cook it more. It's relatively easy to cook. It doesn't need basting or fat in the pan, but do get some crispiness on it."